Climate change impacts nature and disrupts the lives of people. According to a new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most vulnerable people and ecosystems are the ones least able to cope with those impacts.
Despite greenhouse gas reduction efforts, widespread impacts are caused by the “frequency and intensity of climate and weather extremes,” the latest IPCC report stated. Those weather extremes include heavy precipitation events, drought, wildfires, and higher temperatures.
“This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, in a statement. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”
The damage to ecosystems
Climate change has already caused “substantial damages” to ecosystems, and the extent of those impacts is more significant than previous IPCC assessments. Ecosystem damages from climate change include local losses of hundreds of species, driven by increases in heat extremes. Mass mortality events occurred on land and sea, including the loss of kelp forests in the ocean. Some of the losses are irreversible, including species extinctions and the retreat of glaciers.
The report predicts that the number of people at risk from climate change impacts will “progressively increase,” which will cause violent conflict and migration in the near term. As we witness the ongoing invasion of Ukraine play out on the news, this serves as a chilling warning that the drumbeat for increasing the development and production of fossil fuels is risky and foolish.
In North America, rising temperatures are restructuring ecosystems. These changes contribute to the losses of plant, fish, bird, mammal, and faunal species. Within Arctic ecosystems, climate-driven changes are “particularly pronounced,” according to the report. Climate change impacts will change ecological processes.
“Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water”, said IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner. “By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30 to 50 percent of Earth’s land, freshwater, and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential.”
Reducing food and water security
The impacts of climate change include reduced food and water security, which hinders efforts to meet sustainable development goals. While overall agricultural productivity increases, climate change has slowed the growth over the last 50 years. The negative impacts on agricultural productivity are mainly in mid-and low latitude regions. The increase in extreme weather events, including droughts and floods, exacerbates the risks to food security in vulnerable areas. Climate change weakens soil health and ecosystem functions and undermines food productivity in many world regions.
In North America, climate change will shift the agricultural suitability ranges and intensify key crops and livestock production losses. Climate change also affects water supplies as drought increases, particularly in the western U.S. and northern Mexico. Earlier seasonal runoff from a decreasing snowpack increases water scarcity during the summer when the demand is the highest in regions with extensive irrigated agriculture, such as California’s San Joaquin Valley. Forty percent of U.S. fruit, vegetables, and nuts come from the San Joaquin Valley.
The risk to cities from climate change increases as temperatures rise. An estimated billion people will be at risk from rising sea levels. If sea levels rise by 0.15 meters, the population exposed to a 100-year coastal flood increases by 20 percent. A 0.75-meter rise in sea level doubles that threat and triples if sea level rises by 1.4 meters.
North American cities are already affected by the increasing severity and frequency of climate-induced extreme weather events. These impacts contribute to infrastructure damage, loss of economic activity, safety concerns, and disrupted livelihoods. Flooding affecting communities and ecosystems will become a dominant risk to urban centers. Large wildfires will increasingly affect communities and ecosystems.